Full Interview: UN chief economist Elliott Harris

UN chief economist Elliott Harris at his office in the UN Secretariat, New York.
UN chief economist Elliott Harris at his office in the UN Secretariat, New York.

Associate business editor Carla Bridglal recently sat down with UN assistant secretary general for economic development and chief economist Elliott Harris at his office in the UN Secretariat in New York to talk about how the Caribbean can best achieve a resilient future according to the sustainable development goals.

The following is the transcript of her interview with Harris. It has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

What does this unit do? What do you do?

I oversee all the economic and social policy work of the Department of Economics and Social Affairs, and as UN chief economist I sort of pull together the economic and social work of the system as a whole, trying to bring the different sections together to make sure we aren’t stepping on each other’s feet, not wasting resources, but focusing on key issues.

How do you prioritise what the UN should focus on, especially given competing agendas? For example, that dichotomy between developed world and developing world?

I think one of the saving graces we have now is the sustainable development goals agenda, the SDGs, which, unlike the millennium development goals they replaced, apply to all countries. So it’s really a universal agenda.

We all have something we can improve on, the richest and the poorest, so that we can get ourselves onto a trajectory of sustainable development. In rich countries, for example, they might have production that works really well, or higher levels of income, but they may not be paying attention to environmental degradation.

We know that in many of the richer countries, as well, we have a widening income-inequality issue and these are problems that have to be addressed. Because they simply cannot continue indefinitely.

So all of us have something to do, and that’s where I think the UN has a rather unique position, because we look at economic growth from the perspective of how does it contribute to an inclusive and sustainable development that benefits all people and leaves no one behind.

Now, you know there’s the argument, especially in a lot of the developing world, especially when it comes to climate change, that the developed world has had centuries, post-industrial revolution, to burn as much coal as they want to get to the point of developing world status, and there’s so many developing countries now catching up that want that opportunity too. So it’s a balance. How do you encourage the developing world to embrace this sort of (concept)?

I would look at it like this: if the only way of development were to go down exactly the same path as everybody else did, then I can understand the position of “It’s our turn.”

But that’s not the only path. We all need energy. Development without energy does not happen, but we don’t have to burn fossil fuels to make that happen. Nowadays, we have the option of clean and renewable energy sources that do not cost more than fossil fuels.

So the question then is, why do something that you know is going to hurt you just because somebody else did it?

That’s just not rational. You have an opportunity to get the energy you need to develop in a clean and sustainable way at similar cost – then you’re better off than they are.

Whether you caused the climate change or not is another question, but you have the opportunity to develop in a way that is sustainable. I would suggest that it’s better to take that sustainable option.

Okay, because (in) TT, for example, one of our problems is obviously that our main source of revenue is the hydrocarbon industry and trying to wean ourselves off that and grow as an economy, as well as to embrace renewables. Because right now, quite frankly it’s unfeasible to transition to use renewables when electricity, for example, is so cheap.

What advice would you have for TT in terms of developing in tandem with SDGs?

I think any oil-producing country, like Trinidad, has a big problem on the one hand, and a big opportunity on the other.

The big problem is we know there is no doubt in anybody’s mind who knows about these things that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels.

It will kill us. It’s as bald as that. It will kill us.

And those of us who depend on fossil fuels, we’re in a much more uncomfortable place, because we have to find something that will substitute for the fossil fuels as the main source of our revenues, the main source of our prosperity.

But therein lies the opportunity.

Because we are not going to be able to divorce ourselves from fossil fuels tomorrow. The world is built upon fossil fuels. All of the energy sources that are in place are based on fossil fuels. We cannot turn it all off tomorrow. We have to turn it off quickly to move towards renewable energy, but for now we are still going to be using fossil fuels.

Countries like TT that produce fossil fuels must understand that they have a window of opportunity to take the revenues from those fossil fuels and invest them in diversified sources of economic and social growth.

And we have to do it with a sense of urgency, because we know now that at some time in the foreseeable future, we are not going to be able to generate that kind of revenue from fossil fuels.

It’s not in our interest, not in anybody’s interest to delay the adjustment. Let’s start it now.

What do you see, in terms of achieving SDGs, as the most pressing concern? Is it that transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy? I guess energy makes the world go round. So is it that…trying to find that sustainable source of energy?

I wouldn’t say there’s any one priority.

I think we have to make progress on all of the 16 goals (17 is about partnership), but in essence I think each country has a slightly different, very particular set of immediate priorities, even though the whole agenda needs to be implemented. For example, we talk about education. Some countries are very far ahead on education, so they don’t need to worry about catching up or meeting the goals because they’ve already done that. So they can devote their energy and time and resources to something that they may be a little further behind on.

So each country will have a set of immediate and pressing priorities, but all will have the urgent priority to make sure we are making progress across the whole agenda.

Energy is one of those central things. As you say, energy makes the world go round, and the way we gain our energy now is causing us trouble on the climate-change agenda. So we understand now that we cannot continue the way we are now.

It is a priority that is global in scope. All of us have to prepare ourselves and move to transition away from the high-carbon economy to the low- or zero-carbon economy.

Some countries are far ahead, some have just started, and the degree to which you have to devote time and energy to it depends on where you start from. But it’s clearly a priority for all of us.

Another priority that we don’t pay enough attention to – perhaps it’s not in the headlines – is water. Human beings cannot survive without water, and we are running down the supply of potable water really quickly.

We have the same problem with our oceans. We spend a lot of time wondering about what we can do, but what we have to stop doing is producing single-use plastics that end up, half of them, in the ocean.

So we know in many respects what we have to do, so we have to arrange ourselves so we can do it, understand that each step contributes to the progress we have to make across the whole agenda.

Since you’ve been appointed – you took up the positon last year – do you have hope that we’re getting there?


Look, I’ve been involved in this since 2012. Before I came to this position, I was across the street in the environment programme, and we were very closely involved in the whole preparation of the SDGs.

I will say without any fear of contraction that none of us expected the SDGs to make the impact that they have made. I will walk down the street with my little SDG badge and people will say, “Ah! SDGs!” They are starting to recognise it.

But what is more important (is) that we see not just governments taking it seriously, we see civil society and NGOs taking it seriously –  but we see finance institutions taking it seriously, and business and enterprise taking it seriously.

I spend a lot of my time speaking to financial companies, and we have insurance companies, and institutional investors and banks, all of them taking the SDGs as the framework for their business models.

They are changing the way they operate their businesses so they can be more aligned to the sustainable development agenda. I would never have expected it to get that far this quickly.

Are we there yet? No, because we are changing some very fundamental things. But what is happening is that people are recognising that the SDGs are in everybody’s interest.

Tell me a little bit more about that buy-in from the corporate world and how important that has been in pushing the agenda of the SDGs, and also if that is helping with the cultural shift for people to become more involved in them.

I think what we are seeing is business – I’m using that global term – business is starting to realise that being sustainable doesn’t mean that you will be making less profit.

So what you do to become more sustainable? Well, you might reduce the use of resources, inputs, which would reduce your costs. If you are shifting away from using fossil fuels to using renewable energy, you find that renewables are pretty similar in cost now to (fossils), but they don’t have the fluctuations of oil prices, so that’s easier for you to manage. The sun usually is always shining, so that’s more predictable.

You find that if you follow all of the different ways in which a business can improve its environmental profile and improve the sustainability of its operations, most of those improvements also help them to manage more effectively, so it improves the outcome of the business to make better profits.

We find now that people are paying attention to that. So investors, when they look around to see where they should put their money, they have an interest in knowing what the environmental footprint of an enterprise might be.

And companies that are making that effort to find out their environmental footprint and deal with their social impact are generally better managed (so investors see more stable profits).

Can I say everyone is doing it? By all means no, but enough people are that the rest of them are starting to pay attention.

Seeing this trend then, do you think it’s driven by age, that is, youth – millennials and Generation Z – and also, how do you feel – not to get political – but when you see politicians making claims, example Brazil’s idea to clear the Amazon for cattle farming, or the US repealing the Endangered Species Act, etc, for quick development or to make a quick buck, basically, in a way that is clearly unsustainable – how do you feel when you see these things, but then there’s a concerted effort on the other hand by a lot of business to change?

It’s upsetting to see politicians deliberately and cynically try to exploit people’s uncertainty and promise a better life doing the same old dirty things.

It’s not true. It is not sustainable. And they cannot deliver it. But they don’t care. They just want to be in office. And somebody else is going to (feel it).

The advantage is they cannot stop (sustainable development). They can slow it down.

You find that people around the world have access to information in a way that they didn’t have before. So when these politicians make these claims, it is a relatively simple matter for people to inform themselves about what the reality is. Now, is it always going to be easy? No, because many people don’t make the effort to find out. But we have the possibility to bring home a core message that makes sense to people.

Because sustainability makes sense. If you poison the water that you expect to be drinking in five years’ time, then when the time comes, you will have nothing to drink.

That doesn’t require rocket science, it doesn’t require any big planning, it’s common sense. That’s what the sustainability message is all about. It’s thinking about what we need to do today so we will be able to live the lives we want to live tomorrow. We cannot continue indefinitely to use up the clean air that we have, to poison the water, damage the quality of the soil, to cut down the trees.

It’s better now than it was ten years ago, because now we understand how it all hangs together, and I think that’s where I remain optimistic. I think enough people realise that we can do things (more sustainably) and still get the kind of life we want to have, and they are increasingly refusing to believe the claims of these short-term politicians that somehow you can turn back the clock.

We need to design ways in which we can prevent short-term politicians from coming in and reversing the progress we’ve made or (at least) trying to reverse. And I think a large part of that would be that we have a public debate about these things and talk about it openly, and say we understand that things are changing. We in the Caribbean suffer now from these hurricanes that are coming every year at category 5, when not so long ago you hardly ever saw a category 5 hurricane. And they are much more intense, much more frequent – and it’s not an accident. We can’t change it overnight, but we know what’s causing it. It’s climate change, and climate change is coming from fossil fuels and greenhouse gases. The science is clear, but you don’t need the science to see what is going on.

If we focus on that and carry that message, and say that there is something each of us can do, I think you’ll find that the mindset will change and then those politicians that want to exploit and play on people’s fears just to get themselves elected, they might have a harder time of it.

And then young people, you’re seeing young people make the effort to drive that change?

Yes, and in many respects, I’ve told people before, my job is a holding one. You want to make sure it doesn’t get so bad that there’s nothing left for young people to work with.

If we succeed, young people will surely solve our problems, because if you think about it, young people today know much more than we did – at least than I did – when I was their age. They have access to information that was just not possible 15-20 years ago. They have their own reality, but they also know about other people’s realities – what is working where and what is not working where.

And they come together. They use social media to mobilise each other and they become a force to be reckoned with – an informed force: they know what they want.

And I think this is a really good sign. We need to listen a little bit more to what younger people are telling us and realise they don’t want the kind of lives we have. They don’t want to have a poisoned planet. They don’t want to have a society driven by inequality, and since they are going to be the ones in charge soon, then it’s time we start moving towards the way they think as the right way forward.

Shifting to the Caribbean: you are a Caribbean man. Do you think that the Caribbean and the UN engage well enough with each other to achieve these SDGs?

That is a very fraught question. It’s difficult to answer.

There are areas where the UN and the Caribbean work well, and others where I think there is scope for improvement.

One of the problems that I think we have in the Caribbean is that we are each of us relatively small compared to some of the countries around us. Together, we are much weightier. If you put all of the Caricom islands together, it’s a significantly larger population, significantly larger economic size.

But although we have in place the Caricom, I’m not yet sure we’re doing everything as well together as we could be.

And so that would be the first thing I think would make it easier for us (the UN and Caricom) to have a more fruitful and productive relationship, if we had a more unified front.

And we (the region) do face many of the same challenges from one island to the next.

So if we were to say to ourselves, “Let’s figure out what are our priorities as a region and then where do we need the support of the UN,” and in one voice say what we need, I think it would be much easier for us to get what we need.

The UN itself has already tried to look at the region as a region. So for example, there is one UN development assistance framework, which guides the UN development system in supporting countries, for the Caribbean.

But the problem is, it’s not for the whole Caribbean, it’s just for Caricom.

But nonetheless it’s a big step forward, and I think that is the way in which we can improve our relationship (with the UN). Instead of doing it country by country, in areas where we have concerns or common issues, we can do it jointly.

Secondly, many of the problems that we face cannot be solved in the Caribbean. We are very dependent on trade, and of course, we don’t set the rules for the global trading system. We are very dependent on a reasonable climate, especially those dependent on tourism, and yet, there we are takers, the victims of climate: we don’t determine what the climate should be.

So I think from there is where we can try to use the regional platform and then, in collaboration with the UN, to amplify our voices and point out to the global community, these are things that we depend on and they are being taken out of our control and are being degraded and upheaved and changed, and we are suffering from it.

So I guess the billion-dollar question there would be: how?

It is hard. When you see how small we are in the larger global scheme of things, yes, it is easy to fall into despondency and think it doesn’t matter what I think because nobody is even going to hear me.

And that’s where the regional union becomes all the more important.

Here in the UN each country has one vote. Now, you may assume one vote is equal to the other, and perhaps it is when you’re counting, but the weight of each individual country depends.

But when you have all the Caribbean coming together and speaking in one voice, it’s not just one vote. It’s a whole group, a bloc at one time. And that means people will pay attention to what the Caribbean thinks.

And that is where I really believe we need to spend more time and effort to make our regional organisations work more effectively for us.

I would like to see that in most of the key issues, the ones we can’t solve on our own, that there is a Caribbean stance, a Caribbean position on these things which we will work out first in the Caricom, among the governments, and then we have one message that we present to the rest of the world, and that will cause more attention to be paid to (the region) and increase the influence we might have on a global stage.

The other thing we need to do is start working with other countries that share our views.

One of the advantages we have in the Caribbean is our people are well educated and they are perfectly capable of (articulating) what we need and what we want, and we don’t have to wait until we are in the General Assembly to start presenting our problems. We can be reaching out first to our regional neighbours in Latin America and then to others facing similar problems and say we welcome their help.

This is why it is important (for) us to step up on the climate agenda and advocate for change and the full implantation of the Paris Agreement. These are the things I think we need to do more of and spend more time on – building up these relationships and accords around questions of existential concern.

That would be great, but then you have (conflicting interests) with TT and now Guyana with its hydrocarbon-based economy. So intra-regional consensus (is difficult).

Again, we have to ask ourselves, how can we get what we need most effectively? It’s in our interest to come together and collaborate and push our needs on a global stage.

You’re right, there are two of our economies that are heavily dependent or becoming heavily dependent on hydrocarbons. We need to face that reality.

I can’t tell you on what day at what time the last coal-fired power plant will be shut down, but I know it will happen in my lifetime. And it may happen before I even retire. That’s how much this is picking up.

I know that we have other technologies now that can replace all of (fossil fuels). These are things we can put in place today. It stands to reason that we should be preparing for that inevitable future.

It is true it puts our economies – TT and Guyana – at a bit of a disadvantage, because these economies will not be able to make full use of that natural resource.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can use the revenues from those resources that are still being generated to prepare the future, to prepare for transition, to make it easier. We need to start doing it. And the earlier we start, the easier the transition will be. The longer we wait, the rougher, more painful and costly it’s going to be.

It is a fact. Whether we like it or not, we have to deal with it.

Beyond climate, have you seen us making strides in any of the SDG areas? Education, poverty reduction, income inequality? And if so, in your opinion, where can we do better?

 I think there is scope for us to improve the co-ordination of our macroeconomic policy. We have in many respects regimes, tax regimes in particular, but also expenditure policies, that reflect the individual concerns and individual structures of the economy, but differ enough from our neighbours that we can’t generate economies of scale.

One would think that because of how geographically close we are together that some form of a united front on certain aspects of economic policy might make sense. A customs union, for example, could be something that could reduce the administrative costs to each government and might generate possibly a more predictable flow of revenue.

I don’t have all the details of the structure of imports in each country, but nonetheless these are things that have worked well in other regions of the world where they pool resources to do functions they have to do individually anyway.

I also think we have to also spend some time thinking about what are the areas, the sectors, common to our different economies.

Many of us do have a tourist industry, but the whole infrastructure of tourism is something that we could perhaps consider doing jointly.

So for example, if we are going to consider bringing tourists into the region, they may come and have one type of holiday in one island and another type in another island. Maybe we can pool together and offer a whole regional vacation package.

Now that may sound like we’re splitting the revenues and reducing the profits, but we might find we can attract a larger number of tourists under more controlled circumstances which would benefit all economies that have tourism to offer.

And I think that consolidation and collaboration around things we do individually might allow us to lift ourselves up to a certain level of economies of scale that would be easier to manage, cheaper for us to produce and allow us to generate greater value added for the benefit of the citizens.

We have a relatively well-educated population, but again, there are differences across the islands. I suspect there would be scope for us to offer a higher quality of education to many more of our citizens if we consolidate that.

So we have the UWI. That is a marvellous idea. It is one of the ideas of regionalism that has worked well for decades. That should encourage us to aspire in a whole lot of other areas.

The West Indies cricket team should also inspire us…well, sometimes – everything goes in cycles.

Nonetheless, the things we have done the best in are the things where we have worked with each other.

It will require a lot of political will and harmonising, but I believe we should look more carefully at what we can collaborate (on) and try to do things jointly, simply because we are always going to be stronger together than if we try to do it on our own.

Is there anything you see us doing very well in?

I think as a region we have done reasonably well on education. I think Caribbean people are reasonably well educated and have the possibility to advance their own education.

I think we’ve done reasonably well in the financial sector. I see the financial sector developing.

We’ve had setbacks. A few years ago, we had a big problem with Antigua, and we have the problem with debt, which is hanging over our whole region like a deadweight. But we have been able to develop our financial sector much more than perhaps other developing regions have been able to do.

I think we have lost out a little bit on the tourism industry:, we are near to a very large market in the north, but there’s also a very large market to the south, and we haven’t done enough to take advantage of all the possible sources of tourism. And I think one other thing we’ve done reasonably well is, we’ve managed – I don’t know if we’ve succeeded – but we have managed to keep the Caribbean open to the world. We are participating in global trade. We don’t have large economies, we don’t have large open sectors, but we’ve kept ourselves open, and I think that may have benefited us more than to our disadvantage.

Clearly there’s more we can do.

I think we have a real problem in our vulnerability to climate change. The recent hurricane in the Bahamas just reiterated what we saw last year and the year before.

Unfortunately, our economies are so fragile, when a disaster of this magnitude hits, we end up in debt trying to recover, and I think what we can do is try to come together a bit more to figure out how we can prepared for these eventualities, because we know they will happen, and with greater frequency.

How can we make sure that we have the resources available to react immediately in the initial response, and how can we use the various options we have, including insurance facilities, to build up our resilience?

I don’t know that there’s any collective effort to reducing the vulnerability, increasing the resilience of the Caribbean to climate change. I think it’s something we can spend time on.

It will be worth it. It will reduce the impact of some of these unfortunate events on each of us individually, but it will also be part (of setting) the stage for other collaborations.

Now you mentioned the financial sector as one of our successes, although there have been concerned with the region being de-risked. How much of a hindrance could that reputation of being a tax haven be for us to attain a level of development?

Then there’s a significant portion of the population that’s unbanked, so, in terms of the financial security of the population, where do you see that for the region?

We have no excuse that anybody in any of our islands is unbanked.

It makes sense if you’re in a large, landlocked country where distances are large, yes, that’s a problem. But I don’t know anybody in the Caribbean who lives more than 50 miles away from a town. I don’t think it’s possible.

So in my mind there’s no reason why anybody should be unbanked, and it’s entirely possible for the banking industry as a whole to make sure that is taken care of.

And we have at our disposal today financial technologies to make sure we reach every living soul if we want it, without much need for a whole infrastructure of branches and communications.

I think we also should consider a Caribbean financial market. We have several (stock) markets, but each is of a relatively small size. There aren’t that many people in the Caribbean, so why do we have an individual market in Trinidad, an individual market in Jamaica, etc? Why don’t we have a more collaborative approach? A regional financial market, which then would help us to counter some of the negative effects of this focus on “know your customer” (KYC) and anti-money laundering (AML) and terrorist financing that have worked as a disadvantage in the financial industry in the Caribbean.

A lot of that has been because the service that we have offered is the one that has been taken advantage of by those who are seeking to hide from the fiscal authorities in their own countries.

That doesn’t mean that has to be the only financial service we can offer. And we need to think seriously about how we can change that, change the products that we offer to potential clients, so that we can attract capital that doesn’t have to worry if the fiscal authorities back home know where the money is.

Is that easy to do? No. There’s a lot of competition around. Mauritius is working hard to become a financial service centre for the Persian Gulf, as well as east Africa and the eastern areas of the Indian Ocean.

But that’s something they are trying to do because they can see a niche. We can do something similar. Surrounding us we have four of the largest economies in the world: the US, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. These are very large economies. If we can provision ourselves to be the provider for them of certain financial services that don’t run counter to AML and terrorist financing, then perhaps we can grow our financial services sector.

The financial services sector is also an enclave – it doesn’t employ everybody, so we have to find a way to ensure that benefits generated from that industry is ploughed back into our own economies and not stuck in those enclaves to benefit the few, not the many.

And that brings us to income inequality, income distribution and poverty in the region.

When I was growing up in Trinidad, one of the advantages we had was that we had an income distribution system that was relatively equal. Now, we had really rich people but they were a few. We had a few really poor people, but again, it wasn’t a large proportion of the population. The large majority of us was in that middle class. Yes, some had a little more than others, but it wasn’t hugely disparate, the distribution of income.

There has been a change, and that distribution is no longer quite as even as it used to be.

But it isn’t nearly as bad as it is in some other countries around the world. I don’t think we have anybody in the Caribbean who owns such a large share of the economy as it is with some of the multibillionaires in the US, for example.

What we need to do now address the problem of unemployment. More than anything, that is the biggest problem we face, especially among young people. And we know what kinds of problems arise from that. Unemployment leads to desperation, criminality, etc.

Unemployment doesn’t deal with itself by itself. It has to be dealt with via public policy and by policies that encourage private-sector enterprises to hire people. Part of those polices will ensure that young people coming out of school graduate with qualifications that are useful to potential employers.

Part of it has to be to encourage employers, perhaps through tax policy, to hire people, so you remove any taxes on labour itself, and perhaps consider favouring or supporting, through legislation and perhaps tax and expenditure policies, the employment of young people, giving them a chance to get started.

And I think if we focus on those two features, we would perhaps prevent the exacerbation of income distribution.

It’s bad now, it was better before, and it’s getting worse. We have to take steps now so we don’t leave a whole group of the population, our young people, behind. Because it’s on these young people that we will build our future. If they are not part of our society or feel that they are not contributing, we run the real risk of them saying, “Hey, this is not ours.” And then we have a serious problem.

So income inequality is something we have to pay serious attention to. If we find its getting worse, then it’s incumbent on governments to implement policies – they may not be perfect – such as progressive taxation on income, that will allow us to generate income that we can use then to make sure our young people have the kind of training they can use for their jobs.

We can put (things) in place to create an infrastructure that is useful to enterprises that might grow and then hire more people.

We need to prepare ourselves to more actively participate in global trade – not just in goods, but services – because we have young people who are smart and educated and who can provide these services.

And we live in a digital age where it doesn’t matter where you do the service: you can export it digitally. And we have to equip ourselves to take that kind of action. But it does require strategic planning. We can’t do it from one electoral cycle to the next.

Do you think part of that is a cultural issue where we’re so influenced by tradition about what work ethics should be, and to seek more stable jobs (like the public service, for example) rather than more entrepreneurial ventures?

It might have been, maybe in my generation. I remember vividly my grandfather telling me, “Boy, if you’re not being a doctor, you have to be an engineer or an accountant.” And the public service was always seen as something you should aspire to.

I don’t know that it’s the same today. Young people today are far more aware of what’s happening elsewhere and far more aware of different options and different possibilities.

The question is whether those options they see elsewhere are equally available at home. I don’t know if that’s true, and we may not be able to anticipate all the ways people can earn a living, but perhaps we need to make sure and provide the framework/infrastructure and facilities that young people can use in new and innovate ways to generate occupations that we might not have been able to imagine.

And we need to be willing to support them when they do that. I would suppose that it is very difficult for a young person who comes up with an entrepreneurial idea to go into a commercial bank and say, “I need (a loan) to set up and keep my business running.” “What is your business?” he’s asked, and he describes it, and they say, “No, we don’t know about that, we can’t give you the money.”

That kind of hindrance is of course probably very prevalent. And maybe there is something public policy can do to help change that approach, to make it possible for young people to find the resources they need to do different things to earn a living.

What then, as someone from the Caribbean, as someone who has worked all over the world, what do you hope for the Caribbean? Are you happy with the sort of trajectory you are seeing right now?

I think the quality of policy in the Caribbean has improved. There is no doubt in my mind.

I think we spend a lot of time reacting to what is going on around us. And perhaps we don’t have a choice: if a hurricane hits, a hurricane hits, and we have to deal with that.

I would like to see more longer-term strategic planning. Not by individual governments per se, but by regional organisations, because as I’ve said, I really think we are stronger together than we would be individually, and we need to equip our organisations to play that leadership role.

The second thing I would like to see is we spend more time and effort thinking about how we can support our young people as they come into the world of work.

Unemployment among young people in the Caribbean is far too high. It really is a social bomb that could go off if we don’t pay attention, and that is something that requires a collaborative effort between government and civil society, the business community and finance.

The third thing I would like to see us do is think strategically about what kinds of societies we want to have in ten or 20 years’ time.

We live on islands, so nature is right there under our nose and we have to see what’s happening to the world we live in and figure out what changes we have to make in how we deal with that world now so in ten, 20, 30 years we aren’t facing a crisis, we haven’t lost the last tree, haven’t drained the last mangrove swamp, and we still have water in our rivers.

If we do that I think you will find us formulating policy and formulating approaches and changing mindsets in a way that allows us to live in a level of prosperity that does not compromise our future ability to do as well or better. And right now, I think that is a real priority for us.

The sustainable development goals and the 2030 agenda provide a broad framework for us, but we have to sit down now individually and regionally and think through what that means for the ways we operate in our countries in the Caribbean. Because really the SDGs are a blueprint, but we have to translate that into a strategy and policy.

 Tell me a little bit about yourself,. How did you get into this (line of work)?

I’m from Maraval (in Trinidad) and went to St Mary’s College. I won a national schol, went to US, and studied international relations, German and Russian, and soon realised I wouldn’t earn a living in the Caribbean with that combination.

So I decided to switch to economics, because I thought it was the kind of thing that would be useful back home. I did my economics in Germany.

By pure happenstance, I was hired by IMF directly out of university, for a two-year probationary period.

When I returned home to TT, the country was in a recession (so I stayed at the IMF). The work they do at the IMF is top-notch. World-class macroeconomics.

But all along I will say, it was something – I had the sense that there was something else to come in. We would be sitting down writing these macroeconomic policies and thinking, what kind of poverty and social impact analysis should we do, what kind of social safety net should we put in place to compensate for some of the policies we were creating on the macroeconomic front.

At the time, I wasn’t able to articulate what it was I really thought was missing, and then in 2008 I was assigned to be the special representative of the IMF to the UN…and that was an epiphany. Because one of the experiences I had was participating in a meeting organised by the UN Environment Programme about the green economy and the whole principle of that was yes, we are going to produce goods and services that people want, but we are going to do it in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t destroy the environment and has socially acceptable outcomes.

And this was one of those lightbulbs that go off in your head. It means you may choose a policy that might seem to be less good if you look at it only from the economic point of view, but if you look at it from the social or environmental impact, you realise that’s the policy you have to choose – how they affect those other two dimensions.

This was back in 2008/2009, before we had the SDGs, but that’s exactly what they were about. You take the social and environmental, and but then at the same level of the economic, and you integrate all three.

And that is what we are trying to do, and that, unfortunately, isn’t the way policy is made. Economic do their economics and finance, health people do their health, agriculture people do agriculture. They are all in the same government working for the same people but they don’t come together – and that is what really excites me about the SDGs. Its logical. It makes sense. Why didn’t we think of it before?

Were you part of the team that came up with the SDGs?

Yes. At that time, I was working for the UNEP, and that was really interesting because all the other agencies – I shouldn’t be this blunt about it – the other agencies are focused on a particular area.

So the World Health Organisation had the health goal. That was theirs, so they pushed for the goals and worked very hard for the targets. That was their area of influence and expertise and contribution.

We at UNEP made a deliberate and conscious decision that we would not advocate for an environment goal. We wanted the environment to be part of everybody else’s goal.

And we were very successful. There are 89 out of 169 targets that have an environmental component ­– half of the agenda – which is exactly what we needed.

We didn’t want to have an environment goal off by the side that someone could tick off and say, “Yes, we’ve done that, let’s go back to real business.” We wanted real business to be the environment, and I think that was a very important innovation. If my business is also your business, then you are going to help me get what I need.

And I think we are starting to see that. So for example, we had a joint bit of work together with the WHO called “Healthy People, Healthy Planet,” and it was, if you want your people to be healthy, you cannot expect them to be healthy if they’re breathing polluted air. So part of your health policy had to be that you clean up the air. But that’s on the environment side.

So that linkage between what you might do as an environmental-type policy and the impact that has on humans, that is the motivating factor.

We’re not doing it just because it’s an environmental factor, we’re doing it because if we don’t, humans cannot continue to exist on this planet into the future indefinitely. If we look at the way we use our natural resources, we are using them up at a tremendous rate. But what is the next generation going to use to produce the goods that they need?

So we have to think about that. Is it worth it for us to increase our production and use up the resources now and then tell our children, “Sorry, you won’t be able to live at the standard you’ve been used to because we’ve left nothing for you to produce with?” We have to take that seriously and change the way we behave now so our children and grandchildren have a chance. It’s that interlinkage.

And if we do an economic policy that generates GDP growth but all that GDP growth is accruing to ten per cent of the population and the rest are poor, well, that’s not going to last for long, because at some point the 90 per cent of the poor are going to have enough and rise up.

These things have happened in the past and (could) happen in the future, so it’s in our interest to change that now and make sure that in all we do, we keep an eye on all these different dimensions, and do it in a way to progress across the whole sustainable development agenda.

That is the innovation, the thing that is really new. It is difficult to do, but the promise and reward is huge.

Has it been worthwhile, or do you get exhausted and disillusioned?

I get a little worried that it’s possible for people to go out there and contort the truth and deny the facts and the reality and still get elected. I find that really worrisome.

But then, let me put it this way: (on September 22) a coalition of commercial banks from around the world are going to come to New York and they will announce the Principles of Responsible Banking.

These are 100 signatory banks, representing over US$30 trillion worth of assets under management, and they are going to say to the world, they are going to commit to lending money in a way that advances the sustainable development agenda.

That contributes to us becoming more sustainable in the way we consume and produce. Banks finance activity. Imagine if you want to buy a car, if that bank says it will lend that money, but if you want to buy a gasoline car, you will have to pay a much higher interest rate on that loan than if you buy a car that’s hybrid or electric. Which are you going to choose?

That makes a difference in the consumer’s choices, and if they tell you we can do this in all the areas you need bank financing, asking you to take the more sustainable option and make it cheaper for you to do that, well then, that is going to change the world.

Those banks decided to do it because of the SDGs, and that is why they are launching them here at the UN, and I find that really cool. I find that super-interesting that commercial banks can say, “Look, we can still make money doing things differently.”

And that is what more and more businesses (are) finding, and we need now for governments to take heart when they see that, and now take some decisions that might seem to be dangerous politically, and not easily as accepted by people – and they might be surprised (how aware people are).

Any plans to come back to the Caribbean?

I would like to think that is a possibility in the future. The question is, at what point.

I mean this is really a super-interesting time to be here in the UN, and there are still a lot of problems we have to deal with.

We’re not there yet. I see a lot of positive change. But we can do more, and we need to do more faster and it’s a very enriching feeling to know you’re contributing in some way directly, and I think I do have a lot more I can offer here, and I’d like to do some more of that.

It’s not to say that I’m not coming back. It’s entirely possible. The question is when.


"Full Interview: UN chief economist Elliott Harris"

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